NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots entered the 2012 season with a number of questions, most of which were fortunately addressed through defensive schemes which grew increasingly aggressive as the season went on; continue reading for a position-by-position review of the Patriots’ 2012 defense, with grades for each positional grouping.
Defensive Tackle: B
Regardless of which scheme Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are running, New England’s defense begins with nose tackle Vince Wilfork, whose 2012 campaign saw him primarily functioning as a nose tackle in four-man defensive fronts, with Belichick’s traditionally-favored 3-4 front falling by the wayside. Wilfork appeared to have some trouble initially, but improved as the season went on, finishing strong to dispel concerns that he was better suited to the previous defense; the 31 year-old Wilfork also played 1,041 defensive snaps over the season, more than any Patriots defenders other than Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, or Rob Ninkovich.
Wilfork was joined at defensive tackle by Kyle Love, who proved himself to be a predictably strong run defender with little to offer as a pass rusher. Love’s two-gap ability is appealing, but after playing 696 snaps in 2011 and 592 in 2012, it may be time to begin looking for more depth at the position; Love’s 1.5 sacks in 2012 have opened the door for speculation suggesting that the Patriots should invest a high draft pick in a more traditional three-technique pass rusher.
Love’s high snap count can also be partially attributed to a lack of depth at the position: Myron Pryor spent 2012 on injured reserve, Ron Brace and Terrell McClain were cut during the season, and Marcus Forston was more of a practice squad presence. Combined, the above four tackles played just 111 snaps on the year. That left Brandon Deaderick to play 468 snaps; like Love, his usage should probably be more limited moving forwards. Deaderick is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle in the 4-3; he’s also not dynamic enough to rush the passer from an end spot. Unfortunately, he may be a player better suited to New England’s occasional three-man fronts rather than a significant contributor.
Defensive End: B
2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones had an encouraging rookie season, finishing with six sacks despite suffering an ankle injury which limited his second-half production. Jones’ length, power, and ability to beat offensive tackles to the edge should foreshadow a long-term starting role for the right end, whose pass-rushing effectiveness carried New England through the first half of the year.
Left end Rob Ninkovich actually ended up as the Patriots’ most productive pass rusher, sacking opposing quarterbacks ten times and recording five forced fumbles (including playoff production.) He was not quite the pass rusher his statistics indicate and struggled against the run at times, but overall his season could be considered a success after transitioning from linebacker in 2011.
Three additional Patriots defensive ends received substantial playing time this season: Jermaine Cunningham (487 snaps), Justin Francis (302 snaps), and Trevor Scott (289). Cunningham was frequently used as a situational rusher, often sliding inside to the defensive tackle spot; however, his production at both spots could potentially be replaced next season. Francis showed some promise at times, but lacked speed and acceleration, while Scott turned in a couple of solid performances when forced into a bigger role.
Rookie Jake Bequette rarely played, finishing the season with just 29 total snaps.
Outside Linebacker: B+
Alongside Vince Wilfork and Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo is one of New England’s foundational pieces on defense; this season, his play was elevated to another level when the Patriots began calling more blitzes for their linebackers; Mayo rushed 90 times this season and recorded three sacks, three quarterback hits, and ten pressures. He finished among the league’s top five tacklers this season.
Aside from Mayo, the only Patriots outside linebacker to make significant contributions was first-round pick Dont’a Hightower, who was able to parlay his prior experience in Nick Saban’s offense into a starting role, playing 667 snaps and finishing the year with four sacks. Hightower was most notable for his effective run defense, although his coverage skills were just adequate and he appeared overmatched athletically at times.
When Hightower missed time, the Patriots typically replaced him with defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who played well; unfortunately, no other reserves were effective. Special teams leader Tracy White couldn’t stay healthy and will likely be playing elsewhere next season, while Jeff Tarpinian and Bobby Carpenter – the latter of which was released early in the season – combined for just twelve defensive snaps. New England must build depth at the position, especially by finding linebackers who excel in coverage.
Inside Linebacker: B
Brandon Spikes took over 800 snaps at the middle linebacker spot (including playoffs); he was among New England’s most feared run defenders this season, forcing five fumbles while additionally contributing one sack as a pass rusher. He looks like a long-term solution at the position, although his lack of speed and range makes him a liability in coverage; he is not well-suited to the team’s sub packages.
Besides Spikes, the Patriots lacked depth at inside linebacker, with Rob Ninkovich or Dont’a Hightower usually taking over. Only eighteen snaps were divided between reserves Mike Rivera and Niko Koutouvides. New England’s top backup, Dane Fletcher, tore his ACL during the preseason and was unavailable this season; perhaps he can help remedy the Patriots’ coverage difficulties at linebacker next season.
New England’s cornerbacks began the year by struggling to establish regular roles, but eventually improved as the season progressed, especially after trading a fourth-round pick for Aqib Talib, who took over for Devin McCourty at left cornerback and allowed the Patriots to incorporate more man-coverage looks. Talib allowed 29/36 passing (including playoffs) but just two touchdowns, both of which came in his first Patriots performance. A free agent, the Patriots would be wise to gauge Talib’s asking price, especially considering his ability to shadow top receivers.
New England’s most-used cornerback this season was Kyle Arrington, who started the season on the right side before moving primarily into the slot, where he looked more comfortable: four of the five touchdowns he allowed this season were as a boundary cornerback. That should allow the Patriots to insist upon paying Arrington like a third corner rather than a starting option despite his snap count.
Arrington was replaced at right cornerback by rookie seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard, who was on the field for over 700 snaps and played very well, limiting opposing quarterbacks to 50% passing (36/72). Dennard’s intelligence, competitiveness, and physicality allowed him to step in early and establish himself as a viable option on the outside; he provided an impressive return on New England’s original investment: last year’s 224th overall pick.
Depth at the position appeared to be an issue at times; Devin McCourty was frequently forced to move back to cornerback due to injury, as Sterling Moore was released by New England in week eight; Marquice Cole was victimized in the playoffs, allowing 5/5 passing for 62 yards and a touchdown in the conference championship. He is best suited to a special teams role.
Ras-I Dowling’s roster spot may also be in danger this offseason; Dowling failed to stay healthy yet again and does not appear a favorite of the coaching staff. During the seven games in which he was active, Dowling played just 83 snaps despite looking effective in coverage during his limited exposure.
New England’s most versatile defender in 2012 was Devin McCourty, who seamlessly transitioned between left cornerback and free safety as necessary; he was effective at both, but perhaps particularly so in the deep secondary, where he logged most of his snaps on the season: 1,251 including playoffs. McCourty allowed just one touchdown pass at free safety, a three-yard pass during the conference championship game. His deep coverage skills were especially impressive: he was beat on just one throw over twenty yards all season, a 24-yard pass during New England’s regular season encounter with Houston.
The Patriots were originally expected to start Patrick Chung at safety this season, but he fell out of favor after the first six weeks of the season, missing significant time due to injury and starting just two later games as an injury replacement. Chung’s inability to stay healthy, his stiffness in coverage, and his propensity to commit costly penalties will likely push him out of New England in 2012; expect him to look for a starting role elsewhere on the open market.
New England’s other opening-day starter was free agent signing Steve Gregory, who began the season at free safety before replacing Patrick Chung at strong safety later in the season. Gregory doesn’t offer much as an in-the-box defender, but his versatility and reliability are both appealing; he also intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles on the season. Based on his play in 2012, look for him to begin 2013 as New England’s starting strong safety.
The last Patriots safety with a significant role this season was second-round pick Tavon Wilson, who was occasionally responsible for lapses in deep coverage but played better than expected after drawing significant criticism as a draft pick last April. Wilson intercepted four passes and recovered two fumbles; he appears well-suited to occupy New England’s third safety role. With Chung likely on the way out, Wilson may be asked to assume more in-the-box duties next season.
The Patriots also fielded Derrick Martin (69 snaps) and Nate Ebner (36) in limited defensive roles this season.